Quilting During the Civil War

Apr 27, 2012

The American Quilters Society’s annual show is winding down in Paducah, and quilters have seen nearly every fabric, design and stitch associated with the art of quilting. The city has been covered in quilts. Yet, as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War continues, Casey Northcutt investigates a time when fabric was scarce and quilts were relief supplies sent to soldiers.  Of the quilts women did manage to piece together, only a portion remains today, serving as a testament to the hardships of the time.

In one of Gone with the Wind’s most famous scenes the once affluent Scarlett O’Hara, finds herself destitute after the Civil War. To pay taxes on her home, she must borrow $300 from the still wealthy Rhett Butler, but she has no proper clothing left in which to see him.

Undaunted, Scarlet O’Hara sews her drapes into a dress.

O’Hara’s predicament vividly portrays one of the hardships people faced from 1861 to 1865, when the Union and Confederate Armies faced off in the country’s deadliest war. Necessities such as fabric became ever scarce, especially in the South, and people sacrificed prized possessions to make clothing and eventually, quilts.

 “A lot of times, the most beautiful fabrics that were available were the fabrics that were used for draperies or home décor—or just the scraps would be used for quilts."

Justin Hancock speaks from the fabric warehouse in Hancock’s of Paducah, his family’s business. He has watched customer after customer purchase kits designed to recreate historical quilt patterns, including those designed to reflect Civil War fabrics and styles. As the war’s sesquicentennial anniversary progresses, fabric manufacturers have started playing even more to their customers’ historical fascinations.

“I think people have a deep-seated interest in connecting to the past. In our industry, a lot of things are very fashionable, yet they’re reproductions of things that have been done before or reinterpretations of art that is neoclassical or art nouveau or arts and crafts, so this connection to the past through textiles is pretty strong.”

Unfortunately, Hancocks might be the easiest way to find quilt samples from that period. A lot of the original pieces have not survived the 150 years since their creation. Quilt historian and author Barbara Brackman says people quilted during the Civil War, but overuse, disease contamination and harsh environments destroyed a lot of the pieces. What quilts we do have serve as history books written with material and stitches. Brackman says women of aid societies generated many of the quilts during that period and sent them to soldiers in battle.

“That’s why quilts are important because they often document women’s lives—and  some of these women’s organizations—and they document women’s lives in ways that newspapers—formal things sometimes didn’t.”

And along with preserving history, quilts from the Civil War also preserve stories. Brackman says numerous pieces possess back-stories in which soldiers stole them from the enemy army. At the same time, several quilts possess back-stories that are complete myth. Remember that tale about slaves using quilts as code on the Underground Railroad? Not true. Brackman says stories circulate that slaves once used patterns such as the Drunkard’s Path to communicate secret messages. The Drunkard’s Path supposedly indicated that escapees should run in zigzags to avoid capture. However, that pattern did not develop until the 1880’s.

“These are like anachronisms. These are like having a person wear a wristwatch in a movie about the Civil War. You know, it’s just so, so wrong.”

But surrounded in historical fact or intriguing myth, these quilts have an enigmatic tie to history. In an upstairs corner of the Market House Museum in Paducah, a glass case houses a quilt stitched by Mary Anna Custis Lee—the wife of General Robert E. Lee.

Lee quilted the piece shortly after the Civil War ended, but her creation holds a distinct tie to that era—she used patches of blue cut from Confederate Uniform material. Executive Director Penny Baucum Fields can visualize the woman, hunched over her quilt, stitching with hands that, by that time, were gnarled from arthritis. The quilt fills Baucum Fields with awe.

“It’s just unbelievable. Somebody who had that much pain in their hands, you would think probably when they did a quilt pattern, they would do a very easy quilt pattern, this is not. You can see all the little stitches. I mean, it’s about the size of oyster crackers.”

Small stitches crisscross the quilt in a pattern of squares. Its bright red sections have faded to a dusty pink. It’s hard to imagine such an influential woman sewing that very quilt, but it’s even harder to imagine the circumstances she had endured. Lee stitched through pain—like every other woman who quilted through the Civil War.